A Complete Guide to the Major Pentatonic Scale

Apart from the major and natural minor scales, the pentatonic scales are some of the most popular choices for musicians spanning across every genre of music. 

The reason for this is that pentatonic scales are generally usable in a lot of different scenarios and through many different points of view – you don’t need to play the pentatonic scale that corresponds to the key of the song all the time.

Pentatonic scales, as the name itself implies, are 5 note scales, and this guide is going to focus on the major pentatonic scale

You’ll learn about the intervals that make up this scale, how to play it on the guitar, and other important aspects that you should keep in mind when using it.

The C Major pentatonic scale will be used throughout this guide as an example, but all of the information you’ll obtain is applicable to any other key, you just need to change your root note and position on the fretboard of your guitar.

The Pentatonic Scale at a Glance

Once again, the pentatonic scale gets its name from the fact that it has only 5 notes, as opposed to most scales, which typically have 7 notes instead.

The notes that make up this scale are not chosen randomly, they work as well as they do for a very specific reason, which has to do with the intervals that exist between its notes.

Let’s compare the major scale with the major pentatonic scale to observe exactly where they are different from one another, using C Major as our “template”.

In C Major, the major scale has the following notes:

  • C, D, E, F, G, A, B; or alternatively: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

On the other hand, its major pentatonic scale looks like this:

  • C, D, E, G, A; or alternatively: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6

At first sight, it is easy to notice that the major pentatonic scale is missing two notes in comparison to the major scale.

The removed notes are the 4th and 7th degrees of the scale, and there’s a good reason for that.

Why does the pentatonic scale sound so good?

The main reason why the pentatonic scale sounds great in so many different scenarios is the fact that it does not have a tritone interval in it.

A tritone is the interval that you hear when you play an augmented 4th or a diminished 5th, and it is the same as having 3 whole tones between two notes.

In C Major, this interval exists between F and B, which are the 4th and 7th degrees of the major scale, respectively.

By removing these two notes and sticking to the remaining 5 (the 5 notes of the major pentatonic scale), you obtain a sound that fits in much better in some cases than if you were also using that fourth degree, for example.

In a way, the saying “there are no wrong notes” is true, but some sounds can be harsher and less consonant than others, and using pentatonic scales generally counters that, granting you a more melodic sound.

Removing the 4th and 7th degree of the scale also gives us a scale that has no semitone intervals, which helps obtaining this type of sound that fits in nicely in most cases. 

Using C Major as an example, let’s compare these two scales again and analyze this aspect:


Notes

C

D

E

F

G

A

B
Major Scale Degrees
1

2

3

4

5

6

7

Interval

W

W

H

W

W

W

H
Major Pentatonic Scale Degrees
1

2

3

5

6

As you can easily tell, the major pentatonic doesn’t have any semitone intervals – in this case, you go from E directly to G (instead of F), and from A directly to C (instead of B).

Having this quality means that the notes that generally “ask” for resolution do not appear, and this is mainly what gives the pentatonic scale its versatility and ease of use.

Not to say that the other notes don’t have their place and their own qualities, but you need to be able to use them in a musical way, otherwise they will sound a bit out of place.

Using the pentatonic scale is a foolproof way of avoiding this kind of situation!

Major Pentatonic Scale Patterns on the Fretboard

In order to be able to move freely around the fretboard and avoid having to “fish around” for certain notes or patterns, obtaining a solid awareness of the guitar’s neck is mandatory.

Fortunately, the guitar’s fretboard is organized in such a way that allows people to divide it into a few sections, map out the notes and patterns in them, and then work on connecting those sections, which are frequently called “enclosures” or “boxes”.

Using a method like this gives you the amazing ability to look at any region of the neck and instantly know where a certain note or pattern is, before you even play anything. This kind of skill makes you play everything with a lot more intention.

For the pentatonic scale, we’re going to take a look at the same method that was covered when discussing the major scale – the CAGED System.

CAGED System

We will use the C Major Pentatonic scale as our example for this demonstration of the CAGED System.

The name “CAGED” is a reference to the open chord shapes that are the basis of the enclosures in which the guitar’s fretboard is divided in (C, A, G, E and D, when played in their open string position).

In any case, keep in mind that the goal of using a system such as this is being able to transpose whichever patterns you learn to different keys.

If you memorize where the root note of a key is located inside the enclosures that will be covered in this section, you should be able to transpose all of them to any other key you might need.

The following diagram illustrates the location of every note that belongs to the C Major Pentatonic scale on the guitar’s neck, from the open strings until the 13th fret.

At first, this is a lot of information to take in at once, but after breaking down into easier to digest pieces, you’ll see that you can increase your scales and fretboard knowledge exponentially!

Let’s start by dividing the diagram above into our CAGED enclosures.

Position 1

The first position that we’re taking a look at is based on the C Major chord, when played the following way:

Below, you’ll see the portion of the neck that corresponds to this shape. This is our first CAGED enclosure, ranging from the open strings up until the 3rd fret.

If you’ve studied the major scale using the CAGED System before, you’ll find these boxes familiar, since they are the same thing, except for the 4th and 7th degree of the scale, which have been removed (F and B, in the case of C Major).

One thing that you might notice as you try out these new enclosures, is that the removal of those two notes results in patterns that consist of two notes per each string – this makes it easier to play those tasty pentatonic runs that guitarists such as Eric Johnson or Mateus Asato like using so much.

This shape has its root notes on the 5th and 2nd string. 

Keep track of these details, as they will help you memorize and transpose these shapes a lot faster in the long run, which is the main objective of this method.

Also, you’ve probably noticed that the first note inside this box isn’t C – that’s because we’re covering ALL of the notes belonging to the C Major Pentatonic Scale.

You should be able to play the scale from C to C, but you should also be aware of where the rest of the notes are located, and for that, it is advisable to practice the whole enclosure.

Here is a tablature that shows you how to play through this box, both ascending and descending:

When practicing these enclosures, you should always set a metronome to a comfortable tempo (start at about 60bpm) and play one note per beat. 

At first, focus on memorizing the pattern, the location of the root note, and don’t think about playing fast. 

When you’re comfortable with 60bpm, start increasing the tempo, about 10bpm at a time.

Practice this consistently and you are bound to see results in the near future!

Position 2

The second position of the CAGED System is based on the A Major shape, when played as shown on the diagram below:

Next, let’s take a look at the enclosure that corresponds to this chord shape, when transposed to the key of C Major.

This enclosure can be found between the 2nd and 5th frets.

Just like before, this enclosure does not start with the root note, it starts on the fifth instead (G).

This shape is one of the easiest to play and memorize, since the pattern barely changes.

Here is the corresponding tab:

Position 3

This position is based off the G Major open chord shape, as illustrated below in the diagram:

When transposed to the key of C Major, this shape appears between the 5th and 8th frets.

This is probably the pentatonic shape that guitarists are most familiarized with.

The root note shows up three times in this shape, in the 6th, 3rd and 1st strings.

This shape is the easiest to memorize and play. You only need your index, ring and pinky fingers, which play the notes on the 5th, 7th and 8th frets, respectively.

You’ll find the corresponding tablature below:

Position 4

The fourth position of the C Major Pentatonic scale is found between the 7th and 10th frets, and it is based on the E Major shape, as illustrated below:

Here’s the fretboard diagram that illustrates the region where this enclosure is located, and the notes that belong to the C Major Pentatonic scale:

This pattern actually starts with the root note, making it easier to memorize and start using in a real life scenario. The root comes up in the 6th, 4th and 1st strings.

The tablature that represents this enclosure can be found below:

Position 5

The fifth and last position of the C Major Pentatonic scale is based on the D Major open chord shape, as illustrated in the following diagram: 

If you transpose this to C Major, you’ll find this box between the 9th and 13th frets. Here’s the fretboard diagram that demonstrates this:

You may have noticed that this enclosure goes past the 12th fret, after which all the patterns repeat themselves.
This is one of the “points of connection” between the enclosures we’ve seen (this one connects the 5th box to the 1st, when played one octave above the position that we’ve demonstrated previously).

Your root note only appears first in the 4th string, and then again on the 2nd string. However, this shape is great for pentatonic runs starting on the lowest strings!

Here is the tablature to help you practice this shape:


As always, make sure you prioritize building muscle memory over playing through these shapes as fast as possible.

You want to master each individual enclosure first, and then start working on connecting them with one another.

Connecting the Enclosures

As you have seen by now, the main focus of breaking down the fretboard into chunks that are easier to digest is being able to connect them seamlessly in the long run.

For this, you will need to be aware of the regions where these enclosures share some of their notes, and use those to move around the neck.

The diagram below is a useful visual aid that shows you the frets in which the enclosures that we covered have some notes in common:

In order to connect these shapes, many techniques can be useful. For instance, you can slide from one enclosure to another, you can simply shift your hand, move through the neck using arpeggios, among other strategies.

The important part is that you first feel comfortable with each of these individual regions, and then start working on connecting them.

Also, whenever you’re studying this, try to practice it in different keys, so that you’re forced to memorize the location of the root note in each shape.

For example, if you start playing the C Major pentatonic scale using the second position that we’ve seen, you’ll find your root on the 3rd fret of the 5th string. 

If you want to play the D Major pentatonic instead, you simply have to move that same shape up two frets (same distance between C and D)!

This is what will give you the skillset needed to take full advantage of the CAGED System in the long run.

Conclusion

To sum it up, the pentatonic scale is a must know for pretty much any musician. You probably already know a few licks and phrases that are based on this scale.

However, mastering it to the point where you can play all of those licks in any region of the neck, and being able to connect those regions is one of the things that sets apart a fully-fledged musician from the rest.

The major pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale – it is a regular major scale from which the 4th and 7th degrees have been removed.

This scale can be used in many ways, some of them are plain simple (for example using C Major pentatonic over a C Major chord), and others more complex, but the first step is always mastering the patterns, so let’s get to it!

Andrew Bell

I don't think I'll ever stick to one instrument - but the great thing about life is you don't have to.

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